Chapter Summaries for "The Great Divorce" by C.S. Lewis

“The Great Divorce,” written by C. S. Lewis, is a fictional work that deals with theological questions, including universalism and the existence of hell. The book was first printed serially in a newspaper in 1944 and 1945. Its narrative tackles many of the philosophical questions with which Lewis and other modern theologians have struggled.

1 Chapter I

The first chapter depicts the town of Hell, which is dark and desolate and where it is always raining. The narrator haplessly wanders through the streets before discovering a populated bus stop. The waiting people argue and bicker with each other; everyone is disgruntled. The bus arrives. It is driven by an illuminated man. The passengers board, and the bus soars into the air. However, as the bus climbs, the town becomes larger, rather than smaller, in the vision of the passengers. This is because the town's boundaries keep expanding as its inhabitants, constantly fighting, desire to live farther from each other. The town has no communal interests for industry or economy, so everyone lives in solitude. The famous and historical figures that live in Hell are never met, since the town expands for millions of people.

2 Chapters II to V

The bus arrives at a cliff, and everyone exits to Heaven, which is an Eden-like Paradise, full of burgeoning trees, growth and rivers. The narrator sees cities constructed on the peaks of mountains and is astounded by the beauty of Heaven. All of the passengers, in fact, are so paralyzed by the sublime, supernatural place that they are hereafter referred to as “ghosts,” because their bodies become but mere shadows. Soon, the residents of Heaven appear. They are solid and substantial, and so are called “spirits.” The spirits and the ghosts pair with each other, as the spirits try to persuade the ghosts to stay in Heaven. The narrator eavesdrops on the conversations going on between each couple.

3 Chapter VI to VIII

The first conversation occurs between a spirit that confesses he was a repentant murderer whom God forgave. The ghost is perplexed, wondering how he was damned to Hell, while his peer -- a murderer -- was saved. The next conversation takes place between a spirit and a ghost that the narrator calls the “Episcopal Ghost,” a lost soul that stands for atheists, liberal theists and other skeptics. The Episcopal Ghost does not recognize the reality of Heaven or Hell, despite having now experienced both. He maintains that such places exist in the philosophical world alone. He and the spirit debate Christianity and whether or not skeptics are honest nonbelievers or lazy, selfish rebels that prefer Christianity to be untrue so that they can live a life unregulated.

4 Chapters IX to X

The narrator is introduced to a paranoid ghost that expresses very strange claims about the afterlife being a conspiracy. He is convinced that the ghosts are only in Heaven so that God can torment them further. Another ghost, referred to as the Hard-Bitten Ghost, asks why the Heavenly Spirits don't simply destroy Hell and rescue the ghosts, and this question is left unanswered. The narrator also meets a preacher named George MacDonald. MacDonald is not a spirit, but a guide to Heaven. He explains that both Hell and Heaven are chosen by their inhabitants. He further explains that the ghosts that left Hell to visit Heaven were not in Hell after all, but rather in Purgatory, which is a finite Hell that prepares the soul for Heaven.

5 Chapters XI to XII

The narrator listens to a few more conversations, including one between a ghost and her saved brother. The ghost demands to see her son, and she says no honestly benevolent God would refuse that request. There is also a ghost that is full of lust, which is represented by a lizard on his shoulder, constantly whispering in his ear. He asks an angel to kill the lizard, and when this happens, he is transformed into a spirit. In the final two chapters, MacDonald and the narrator find an angelic procession paying tribute to Sarah Smith, a spirit that was a saint on Earth. Sarah Smith's husband is a ghost, and the narrator wonders how she can experience true bliss without him, but she says she has no miseries. A short epilogue follows which philosophically reflects on the realities of Heaven and Hell and of the human spirit, which craves reality (Heaven) but is weakened by temptation.

Audrey Farley began writing professionally in 2007. She has been featured in various issues of "The Mountain Echo" and "The Messenger." Farley has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Richmond and a Master of Arts in English literature from Virginia Commonwealth University. She teaches English composition at a community college.